Epona is popularly thought of as the Celtic goddess of horses, but she is more than just a horse goddess. Worship of her spread from the Celtic world in Britain across ancient Europe and was even brought to Roman attention.
Epona generally is pictured riding a horse with a foal at her side. Her features are difficult to decipher due to the eroded nature and less sophisticated artwork and statuary of the Celts (in comparison to Greco-Roman world). A younger woman, Epona wore a robe and tended to be shown with her hair gathered back. Her scenes are usually shown in springtime, though on occasion she is pictured in a summer landscape.
Mythology and Worship
If there were any myths associated with this goddess, none have survived for us to read today. It is probable that originally Epona was not viewed as a human-shaped personification of anything, but as a mare. Chalk drawings of mares found in Britain support this view, but there is no conclusive evidence to say one way or the other. In some places she is considered to be a facet of the Welsh goddess Rhiannon. Epona’s cult spread from Britain out into what would be parts of the Roman Empire: Brittany, Gaul, Pannonia/Illyrium, Hispania, etc. Inscriptions dedicated to Epona have been found in Germany and Rome, and tablets and steles (like that pictured above) have been found in various countries.
It was a great honor for any deity that was not “originally” Roman to be given a feast day on the Roman calendar. But Epona was granted a feast day on December 18, and she was incorporated into the Imperial cult. Her appeal to the Romans lay in her connection to horses, which the Roman army used in great numbers. When Rome finally spread to Britain and Gaul and was introduced to the local gods, Epona was adopted first by the army in those areas. Then, as those soldiers returned home or reports returned to Rome, information about Epona spread, and those men who returned home carried her with them. Thus she was introduced and adopted by the Romans as one of their own goddesses, a protector of horses and so a deity of war when the army marched.
However, war and horses were not likely her only domains. Because of the foal that is often pictured running with her, and because the scenery is often spring, Epona is also considered by modern researchers to have been a minor fertility goddess. Obviously the Romans ignored that aspect and chose to honor only her equine facet. But closer examination reveals a deeper connection to the world than only horses and war.
With so little being known about the goddess, it is more difficult to tell what her nature is, and what could be considered her Light and Dark sides. As a fertility goddess, Epona has a connection with nature, with spring and even partially summer. Her Light side then includes creation, birth, and youth. She is not a mother goddess in the sense that she cares for the young–instead, she helps to bring children into being. Considering this role as a fertility goddess, it is possible she was also invoked during childbirth, though it is more likely that she would be invoked during the birth of animals, especially horses, than humans. Her connection with horses lends her strength and speed, and a nobility that cannot be ignored. As a goddess invoked during times of war, these are assets, but during times of peace it is less certain that her wartime abilities would be emphasized, and instead the emphasis would be placed on her ability to care for horses and the young, her abilities as a fertility goddess, and the attributes of the horse that are also imbued in her by extension. Her Light side, then, includes creation, birth, youth, strength, swiftness, agility, and courage.
Again, because so little is actually known about Epona, it is more difficult to decipher what her Dark side is. However, we can guess and make some educated conclusion. As a goddess invoked during war, Epona has a hand in death. As a fertility goddess, she has the power to give fertility and also withhold fertility. She is not known for being jealous or petty, but we cannot be sure that she was not either of those things, and so we cannot be certain that she would have withheld fertility or her wartime arts if worship of her was not done properly. The Dark side of Epona, then, is likely the ability to take away fertility and her arts of war–courage, swiftness, and agility can all be negative aspects if in too great supply.